Ellen Douglas: A Family’s Affairs
This was Douglas’ first novel and a very fine one it is too. It is about the Anderson family and their various relatives, who live in Homochitto, Mississippi. We start with Charlotte and her marriage – marriage, its successes and failures, is a key theme of this book. We quickly move on to the matriarch of the family, Kate Anderson. Kate is the widowed mother of Charlotte, her two sisters, Sarah D. and Anna, known as Sis, and her young brother, Will. We follow Kate from being a mother just starting to marry off her children up to her death and funeral. Since the death of her husband, she has struggled to bring up her four children but has managed to do so. We learn of her concerns, her at times ambiguous relationships with her children and their families and of her economic woes as she, like most of the characters, struggles through the Depression.
While Kate acts as the frame of the story, the focus shifts dramatically from her to her granddaughter, Anna, daughter of Charlotte, in the middle of the book. Anna might be said to be a “normal” girl but what Douglas does is to show us her inner thoughts and fantasies (including sexual – she has a brief affair with a teacher when aged sixteen), her puzzlement at the strange things adults do and say and her relationship with her father. If there is one fault with this novel, it is that when Anna reaches adulthood, Douglas seems to lose interest in her and she virtually disappears from the story, as we return to Kate and the rest of her family.
Douglas clearly is pointing out that families can be wonderful things, holding together the fabric of society but, at the same time, they can be a pain and cause much distress. Only Charlotte and Ralph can really be said to have a fully satisfactory marriage. Sarah D.’s husband, Charlie, always has “projects” to make money, which rarely do make money. Sis suddenly marries, at age thirty-five, a divorcee from the wrong side of the tracks. Interestingly , we never see the marriage, the plot jumping from the marriage to a period five years later when the couple is divorced. Will has a drinking problem and though he remains married to Eunice for twenty-five years, she eventually walks out on him. We hear little about Kate’s husband, only that he favoured Anna, which, it is implied, is the source of her subsequent problems with men.
The achievement of this novel is to paint a wonderful portrait of a relatively ordinary family and to get just enough beneath the skin to make it interesting, to show not just the family members but their interactions. If you have a family, you will enjoy this. And if you don’t, this novel might make you feel you are well off without one.
First published 1962 by Houghton Mifflin